Xi3 Piston, First 'Steam Box' Console, Up for Preorder at $100 Off

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Valve CEO Gabe Newell has been talking up the company's plans for a "Steam Box" game console, based on its Steam digital distribution platform, for awhile now. And while the company hasn't yet taken the wraps off of its own official Steam Box yet -- or said much about it, besides that it will come in multiple performance tiers and be powered by Linux -- it has let us know that other manufacturers will be making their own consoles to Valve's specification.

The first of these, Xi3's Piston, already debuted to much fanfare at this year's CES. Xi3 is now taking preorders for the Piston, and from now until the end of the SXSW festival next Sunday it's offering $100 off the $999 retail price.

What is the Piston?

It's a customized version of the X7A, a computer the size of a softball or grapefruit. It packs gaming-class hardware inside, but draws very little power, and is designed to be modular and upgradable.

This sets it apart from other dedicated game consoles, like the current-generation PlayStation and Xbox. You can upgrade their hard drives or buy accessories for them, but Xi3 is promising more lifespan-extending upgrades on its hardware, the equivalent of if you could swap out your PS3's cell processor for the PS4's new mainboard and play PS4 games on it.

How is the Piston customized compared to a regular computer of its type?

Xi3 is calling it a "console" instead of a computer, meaning it's going to be a Steam box designed to use Steam's Big Picture mode. (It may not use Windows; the X7A comes with Suse Linux by default.) Big Picture mode is a special version of Steam that's designed for the living room, which works less like a "computer" and more like a game console, complete with controller support.

Did Xi3 cut any corners in making a gaming computer that small?

Besides the fact that its price tag is more on par with a full-sized gaming rig than a modern game console, the Piston is also limited by its 128 GB solid-state drive, which is only large enough to hold a handful of AAA games like Mass Effect. Higher-tier options are available, but at an enormous premium; $340 to double the space, and $750 for half a terabyte.

You can buy separate external drives, including one made by Xi3 to fit under its PCs. Since Xi3 uses proprietary hardware modules, however, it may be difficult to upgrade the internal drive without buying a whole new module from Xi3 at whatever price it charges.

When will the Piston be available?

Pre-ordered consoles will ship "in time for the 2013 Holiday Season," according to Xi3.

Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.

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